The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sen. Graham: If Trump gives in on the shutdown, it’s ‘probably the end of his presidency’

The Fix's Colby Itkowitz analyzes why President Trump was ready to cave on border wall funding to keep the government open until conservatives called him out. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

With the government shutdown, President Trump has put himself in an impossible position.

He’s tied his support for a solution entirely to securing billions of dollars to build a wall on the Mexican border. House Democrats say that’s a total non-starter. Meanwhile Trump has rejected compromise deals and temporary solutions, some negotiated by his own allies. He’s dug in so hard, he’s left no wiggle room for himself.

During Wednesday’s White House meeting, Trump acknowledged as much, telling congressional leaders that reopening the government without securing wall funds would make him look “foolish."

But it goes even deeper than that. Consider Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s (R-S.C.) description of Trump’s conundrum during an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity on Wednesday:

“If he gives in now, that’s the end of 2019 in terms of him being an effective president,” Graham said. “That’s probably the end of his presidency. Donald Trump has made a promise to the American people: He’s going to secure our border.”

Trump built his presidential candidacy on ending illegal immigration, an issue he tied — erroneously — to all sorts of problems, from crime to unemployment to drugs. Keep people out, he’s argued, and make America great again. And he rallied his supporters around the idea of a “big, beautiful wall” as the way to do that.

Trump repeated his message enough times that it became gospel for his base. According to a December poll, more than two-thirds of Trump voters said building a wall is an immediate priority.

But now, in his third year as president, Trump has not produced a wall or a way to pay for it. Instead, he’s been forced to make several concessions. As a candidate, Trump promised that Mexico would pay for the wall’s construction. That fanciful idea was almost immediately shot down by Mexico’s leaders. Instead, funding must come from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. And the wall, as it’s conceived, is steel slats.

Given that, what’s at stake for Trump is not just having to eat crow if he gives in on this issue, but the entire basis of his presidency. Sure, Trump’s voters liked the idea of a no-nonsense outsider disrupting Washington norms and believed his business experience would be good for the economy. But Trump’s appeal to those voters has always been about preying on people’s fears, particularly fear of the “other.”

Trump’s campaign strategy from day one has gone something like this: Convince people that illegal immigrants are criminals and that Trump has the solution to protect the United States.

That’s how Trump has backed himself into a corner. He’s holding hostage several federal agencies that have nothing to do with immigration or national security over his demand for wall funding. But reopening the government without the wall money would expose as a farce his claim that a wall is necessary to defend the country.

The wall is the very essence of his presidency. Without it, as Graham basically said, what is left?